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"Chopped" champion cooks for a local crowd



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Center to Right, Emshika Alberini, Jill Kimball, and guest Chef Evan Hennessey present to guests at Chang Thai's Tenth Anniversary celebration, his assistant chefs for the night look on. (Photo by Justin Roshak) (click for larger version)
November 20, 2018
LITTLETON—Accomplished celebrity chef Evan Hennessey wined and dined Littleton residents last Wednesday, and gave the North Country a taste of the cutting edge in award-winning Granite State.

Hennessey began his menu with a lightly cooked sunchoke (a native species of flowering root vegetable) surrounded with mussels, black garlic, and lardo (a Tuscan salami with rosemary). He partners with University of New Hampshire to raise blue mussels for his restaurant, part of his personal interest in, and professional commitment to, locally-sourced ingredients.

For a second course, Hennessey cooked wedges of cabbage in their own juices for 24 hours, along with apple and mushrooms, reduced to a sweet, rich sauce.

The theme of mushrooms continued into the third course, which he described as a light, "aerated soup" of matsutake and porcini mushrooms, grilled and minced with barley liquor, mixed with raw oysters and their juices, and garnished with ground cow's heart, itself smoked and dried for three months to break down its muscle fibers.

The fourth course introduced a green vegetable, sea rocket (a succulent seaweed, also called beach arugula) tinged with vinegar and wasabi, topped with pollock and floating on a puree of sea urchin and slow-cooked duck egg.

Things took a turn for the traditional with the fifth course, a riff on Thanksgiving dinner that included spigariello (broccoli greens), carrots roasted with toasted coffee beans, and turkey from a rare breed know as "chocolate turkeys." Hennessey told guests that chocolate turkeys were reduced to 400 birds at one point, but have been restored to ten times that number thanks to a farm in Loudon, and others worldwide—and the restaurants who serve the birds.

Hennessey completed his menu with cookies named for his daughter, Emily, which included 72 percent Peruvian chocolate.

Hennessey originally went to art school, and played a lot of basketball, but failed out. He began again as a dishwasher in a fried seafood joint. This spring, he won Episode Five of Season 37 of the Food Network's television show "Chopped," using a different kind of foraging: leftover takeout as the base for a meal, according to Fosters.com.

"He still has the eye for design," said Jill Kimball, who performed the role of master of ceremonies for the evening's feast and festivities.

Hennessy's own Dover restaurant, "Stages," specialized in small-audience, many-coursed meals prepared and served right in front of guests, and emphasized locally sourced ingredients, often gathered by Hennessy himself.

Sourcing ingredients year round requires know-how and preparation. He preserves fresh ingredients for the long winter months by drying, curing, or pickling.

"Even during the wintertime, you can dig through the snow and find sassafras, wintergreen, and birch," he told the Courier.

He insists the hardest time of year to "cook local" isn't winter but late summer, and not from a lack of abundance, but from an over-abundance of choices—and as a chef, keeping up with the pace of the harvest. The real problem with winter cooking is creating a "well layered flavor," he said.

"A fresh ingredient is just as much a challenge as something that's preserved," he added, "It's just a different set of flavors. If you're fermenting, you add a nice kind of earthy funkiness to it. If you're pickling you're adding acidity. If you're curing in salt, you add a saline flavor."

Hennessey aims to bring a "New Hampshire flavor" to the table, though he admitted, "It's always kind of hard to put your finger on what exactly that is. There's a ton of food all around the state, and as long as we're describing it with our cooking the best we can, then that's New Hampshire's flavor."

One of his favorite, and simplest winter dishes combines blueberries, juniper, and game meat.

For those interested in foraging for themselves, he said there were an abundance of good, online resources, and that starting with flowers and herbs was not difficult at all, though he advised, "Stay far away from mushrooms—let the professionals handle that."

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